An ambitious and engaging attempt to capture the elusive essence of a half-century of confrontation on the brink of the nuclear abyss. ``The cold war has been an extraordinary show to watch,'' Inglis (Education/Univ. of Warwick) says here, covering, conversationally and ingeniously, the full range of the spectacle- -from politics to science to art. Following a roughly chronological order, the author organizes his heavily anecdotal history into rotating sections of ``Biography,'' ``Events,'' and ``Fictions,'' beginning with a brief and dramatic ``biography'' of Frank Thompson, a quintessentially brave English intellectual killed as a result of Soviet indifference during the last days of WW II: ``The long fingers of the first moments of the cold war had reached out from Moscow and chilled Frank Thompson.'' Next come the ``events'' of ``The Casting of the Iron Curtain, 1945-47'' (Beria's reign of terror, George Kennan's design for American anti-Soviet policy, the birth of the atomic bomb), and then, several more ``events'' and a ``biography'' of Kennan later, Inglis's first ``fictions'': a lively meditation on ``righteousness'' and the movies and novels--The Magnificent Seven, Animal Farm, etc.--that ``taught that the American way of life, its fine independence and manly self-reliance, is the only meritorious way in a world of bad guys....'' Following this are ``events'' such as the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Poland's Solidarity, etc.; ``fictions'' dealing with ``loyalty and lying'' (spy films) and ``mistrust'' (All the President's Men, Gorky Park), etc.; and ``biographies'' of Freeman Dyson, Philip Agee, Joan Didion, etc. Finally, Inglis frames his patchwork tapestry in black, concluding that the ultimate engine for the cold war was ``prejudice, rigid fearfulness, ignorance, and superstition.'' A fresh and vigorous synthesis that humanizes the harsh march of history.